Alfred Hitchcock Triumphs with “Notorious”

19 09 2010

“The story of ‘Notorious’ is the old conflict between love and duty. Cary Grant’s job – and it’s a rather ironic situation – is to push Ingrid Bergman into Claude Rains’s bed. One can hardly blame him for seeming bitter throughout the story, whereas Claude Rains is a rather appealing figure, both because his confidence is being betrayed and because his love for Ingrid Bergman is probably deeper than Cary Grant’s. All of these elements of psychological drama have been woven into the spy story.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock reached a new peak in moviemaking with “Notorious,” released by RKO Pictures in 1946. Playing on fears that lingered in the new, postwar era, “Notorious” wraps together romance, espionage, suspense and glamor. As Hitch mentions above, the movie starred Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant and Claude Rains, with a script by Ben Hecht from a short story that had been set in World War I.

Hecht and Hitchcock moved the story into the days just after World War II. Bergman plays Alicia Huberman, whose German father is found guilty of treason against the United States as the story begins. As her father is thrown into prison, Huberman gets drunk with her houseguests, trying to forget that she, too, is under suspicion. When she awakens the next morning, one guest is left: T.R. Devlin (Grant), an FBI agent who needs her help. The agency has learned that some of her father’s German compatriots have relocated to Brazil, and they need Huberman to infiltrate the group and find out what they’re planning.

After Devlin says that her service could help her father, Huberman agrees, and they fly to Rio de Janeiro – but during the flight, Devlin tells Huberman that her father died in prison that morning. It’s this kind of manipulation that characterizes the whole film. Devlin and Huberman fall in love while waiting for her assignment to begin, and when her orders come through, Devlin is visibly disgusted, as she has been instructed to get close to one of her father’s friends by seducing him. Knowing her reputation for partying and sleeping around, Devlin turns cool, making snide remarks about how it will be easy for her to draw on past experience to get close to Alex Sebastian (Claude Rains). Sebastian will be easy prey, as he was in love with Huberman years before.

Devlin’s behavior could be a ploy to motivate Huberman into the assignment, or to protect her by pretending he never really cared about her – or he could just be lashing out, frustrated at what’s being asked of her and powerless to do anything about it.

Huberman, with Devlin at her side, meets Sebastian while horseriding, and soon Huberman and Sebastian are a couple. Sebastian is suspicious of Devlin, though, who keeps showing up wherever they go; he’s getting information from Huberman, but she tells Sebastian that he’s an old flame she now detests. Sebastian asks her to prove that he means nothing to her by marrying him.

After the wedding, Huberman reports to Devlin that the only place she hasn’t been able to search for evidence of the German group’s activities is the wine cellar. Only Sebastian has the key, so Devlin tells her to suggest a party, during which they can get into the wine cellar.

The tone of the movie shifts with the party; the romance (and romantic frustrations) of the first half of the movie give way to sheer suspense: First, Huberman must steal the key; then, during the party, they have to slip away to the wine cellar. The pressure escalates as the guests drink champagne faster than expected, which means Sebastian will have to get more bottles from storage.

Rummaging around in the wine cellar, Devlin knocks a bottle from a shelf, revealing that it holds not liquid but what turns out to be uranium ore. With Sebastian coming down the stairs, Devlin and Huberman kiss, then explain that he forced himself on her. Sebastian doesn’t believe him, and when he returns to the cellar for champagne, he finds the remains of the broken bottle – proof enough that Devlin and Huberman are against him.

Concerned that his comrades will kill him if they find out the truth, Sebastian wants to murder his wife, but his elderly mother says it has to be gradual. They begin poisoning Huberman, and when she misses her meeting with Devlin, he becomes concerned. He breaks into Sebastian’s home and finds her in bed, more dead than alive. Sebastian finds Devlin making his way out of the house with his wife, but because his friends are on hand, too, he can’t reveal what really happened. Devlin and Huberman make their escape, leaving Sebastian in the company of his ruthless friends, who have already figured out that there’s something strange about the situation.

The original ending of “Suspicion,” made five years earlier, was supposed to have Joan Fontaine write a detailed letter about Cary Grant’s crimes, then ask him to drop it in the mail. He was then going to kill her and go ahead and post the letter. That didn’t happen in the film, of course, but Hitchcock got to revisit that kind of sophisticated ending, in which the audience has to consider the outcome for the cast, in “Notorious.” We assume that Huberman will be cured, because Devlin said he’d take care of her; we assume that their love wins out, and we assume that Sebastian will be killed by his comrades. By implying all this rather than showing it, Hitchcock creates a more intelligent ending than, say, having the villain fall to his death as in “Saboteur.”

“Notorious” boasts a phenomenal cast, of course. Cary Grant is grim throughout – he almost never cracks a smile, except when he’s putting on an act, making the viewer wonder about his own past. Ingrid Bergman is desperate but determined to do right for her country and herself. The most chilling moment of the movie comes when Devlin finds Huberman sick in bed. Holding her close, he asks what’s wrong, and she whispers, “Oh Dev, they’re poisoning me.”

As a villain, Claude Rains is rather pathetic – he’s manipulated by Bergman and Grant, his friends, and, most of all, his mother. (One of my favorite moments in the film happens when Sebastian starts to tell his mother that he’s been betrayed by his wife. Before the wedding, she had warned him that Huberman was not marriage material; later, when Sebastian starts to explain the situation, his mother smirks at him, expecting him to say that Huberman is cheating on him. When he instead says that he’s married to a U.S. agent, his mother quickly turns off her “I told you so” look and takes control of things.)

Hitchcock tells this story in a sure, simple way, with few of the flourishes that had charaterized his earlier films, other than Huberman’s distorted vision on waking up after a night of drinking, and, later, when she’s succumbing to the poison. Ben Hecht’s script – which was sharpened a bit by Clifford Odets – crackles, although some of the patter might be hard to believe coming from non-American actors less talented than Bergman and Grant.

“Notorious” features a scene that’s famous for working around the production code while subverting it to his own ends. In a scene near the start of the movie, Bergman and Grant are shown in a hotel room, kissing and holding each other. As they continue to kiss – briefly, but continuously – they make their way across the room toward the ringing telephone. The quick kisses were Hitchcock’s way around the production code, which dictated that screen kisses could only last a few second. The finished scene conformed to the guidelines while creating a scene that was far more erotic than the Hays code had anticipated.

The uranium ore found in the wine cellar is among Hitchcock’s most famous McGuffins, one which was only decided upon late in the production. Selznick reportedly didn’t understand its significance, and probably assumed that audiences wouldn’t get it, either, but by the time the film premiered, radiation and atomic bombs were front page news.

This was the second to last film Hitchcock made with producer David O. Selznick, who sold distribution rights to RKO to help him finance his own over-budget “Duel in The Sun.” Although Selznick was distracted by “Duel,” he did have some input, notably making Sebastian’s mother a stronger character.

Hitchcock was credited as producer on “Notorious,” a role he’d play more and more in years to come. Also, as the trailer below shows, he’s now being called “The Master of Suspense,” a nickname that came into use in the late 1940s, which would stay with him for the rest of his career.

Hitchcock would still make one more film with Bergman and two more with Grant. Claude Rains would appear in several episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Next, we’ll take a look at the “Paradine Case,” starring Gregory Peck, Ann Todd and Charles Laughton.


Alfred Hitchcock Encounters the “Saboteur”

22 08 2010

“I would say that the script lacks discipline. I don’t think I exercised a clear, sharp approach to the original construction of the screenplay. There was a mass of ideas, but they weren’t sorted out in proper order; they weren’t selected with sufficient care. I feel the whole thing should have been pruned and tightly edited long before the actual shooting.” — Alfred Hitchcock

The lack of discipline Alfred Hitchcock mentions in regard to his 1942 film “Saboteur” led to a picture with a dizzying diversity of settings and cast members who show up briefly and then go on their way. But really, what would “Saboteur” be without those strange detours and odd, colorful roles?

With “Suspicion,” Hitch fulfilled one of his primary goals in coming to Hollywood: He got to work with Cary Grant, who was just coming off the high of his early successes in romantic comedy and looking to subvert that image. Hitchcock gave him that chance in “Suspicion,” letting him appear charming at first, then revealing his character’s dark side.

“Saboteur” was a big step down in terms of star appeal from “Suspicion,” yet the story works in part because of it. The stars of the film – Robert Cummings, playing the wrongly accused Barry Kane; Priscilla Lane as model Patricia Martin; and Norman Lloyd as Frank Fry — were not well known enough for audiences to have much in the way of expectations for them (in fact, it was Lloyd’s film debut). “Suspicion” had to be revised at the end so that Cary Grant wasn’t a murderer after all. How likely is it that censors would feel the same way about Robert Cummings, though?

Of course, the film doesn’t work that way. It opens as Kane and his friend arrive at an airplane plant in California. On the way through the gate, they bump into a coworker who is rather unfriendly. Moments later, a fire breaks out at the plant, and Kane, his friend and the coworker all rush toward it. Kane hands his friend a fire extinguisher which turns out to be filled with gasoline, and the friend is killed in the inferno. Meanwhile, the coworker, Frank Fry, has disappeared, and the authorities’ chase after Kane is on.

Following a clue, Kane hitches a ride with a chatty trucker to a ranch, but is arrested while he talks to the owner. A breakdown on a bridge gives Kane the chance to escape, and he jumps into a river, then makes his way to a nearby house occupied by an old blind man. The blind man’s niece, model Patricia Martin, arrives at the house, and although she is believes that Kane is the saboteur in the news, her uncle asks her to help him.

They drive across the desert together, and when their car breaks down, they take refuge with a band of circus freaks in a caravan. Kane and Martin find their way to Fry’s next stop, Soda City, a ghost town where they gather hints about the spy ring’s plans before Kane is captured. He talks his captors into believing that he really is a saboteur, and they take him with them to New York City. There, Kane is taken to a society matron’s house, where a benefit dance is taking place. The money is going to the fifth columnist’s cause, of course, although the guests are unaware of this.

Kane learns that their next move will be to destroy a new ship; he escapes but does not manage to save the ship. He is again captured, but when the saboteurs get him back to their hideout, the police are waiting. The band splits, and both Kane and Martin pursue Fry to the Statue of Liberty. After a tussle in the torch, Fry falls to his death, and Kane is cleared of charges.

There’s so much going on in “Saboteur,” it’s almost a good thing that the lead isn’t as interesting as Cary Grant: A fire at an airplane plant; a road trip with a talkative trucker; a mystery at a ranch and, later, a ghost town; a wrongly accused man taking refuge with circus freaks; a chance encounter with a blind man; people taken captive in a society matron’s opulent brownstone and in a New York City skyscraper; sabotage at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; a life and death struggle at the Statue of Liberty — any one of these could have been the centerpiece of the film, but, except for the Statue of Liberty finale, none are particularly more prominent than the next. The suspense does not build as well here as it does in other episodic chase films of Hitchcock’s, like “North by Northwest,” possibly due to the ever-shifting supporting cast.

Robert Cummings is not the strongest leading man, and his mission is not as personal as it might be. At first, he’s out to clear his name, but that soon fades away, to be replaced by the new goal of stopping the saboteurs from harming America’s war efforts. The reason for their activities is not very clear, though: Their leader talks about having more power, and one of the underlings has a weird conversation with Kane that implies some sort of twisted psyche, but why they side with Germany is not particularly clear.

What is clear, though, is that Germany is indeed the enemy is this picture. Hitchcock had hinted at “trouble in Europe” and “the coming war” in several of his pictures since the late 1930s, notably the similarly named “Sabotage,” but there is no question about who the enemy is here. The airplane plant is guarded by armed soldiers, and the Navy is assembling new battleships. Someone asks Kane why he’s not in the Army, and while he doesn’t really answer, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of a war, and that able-bodied men who are not in the service are the subject of some suspicion.

“Saboteur” was an original idea developed by Hitchcock for David O. Selznick, with whom he was under contract. When the script was complete, though, Selznick did not want to make it; instead, he made Hitchcock shop the script to other studios, engendering ill will between the two men, as Hitchcock did not appreciate Selznick’s apparent lack of confidence in his abilities. The film was made for Universal, under a tight budget, which explains the relatively low-wattage casting. The great writer Dorothy Parker contributed to the final draft of the script, adding several patriotic speeches that hold up well. Despite Selznick’s lack of interest in the film, I believe this is the first of Hitchcock’s movies to be billed in the possessive, i.e. “Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur.”

“Saboteur” was praised for its timeliness and its message of warning about Fifth columnists. And while the scene with the circus freaks may seem odd, their different opinions about Kane’s innocence symbolized the different positions people were taking around the country at the outset of the war, when it was not yet clear to some Americans why we were in the fight.

“Saboteur” is also notable for Hitchcock’s use of location shots of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Statue of Liberty, although Hitch brings his technical expertise to bear in scenes like the finale, where Fry falls to his death from the Statue of Liberty’s torch.

So, for anyone keeping track, “Saboteur” marks the start of the second half of Hitchcock’s feature film career. I now have 25 films to go, not including some special entries that we’ll get to in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, our next film will be “Shadow of a Doubt,” starring Theresa Wright and Joseph Cotten and cowritten by Thornton Wilder.

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